Historic Marrakech bids to become an artistic hotspot

Madonna 207, Max Bouthafal Image copyright RICHARD DUEBEL
Image caption Max Boutfathal's Madonna 207, outside the Badi Palace

Earlier this month the Marrakech Biennale drew a sizeable crowd to its opening in the magnificent remains of the 16th Century Badi Palace, Morocco's most popular tourist destination.

With France's former Culture Minister Jack Lang in attendance, there was a sense the international contemporary art event had reached a significant turning point.

Marrakech Biennale 5 was a moment to take stock, and for executive vice-president Amine Kabbaj the key to its future success lies partly in the city's location.

"We lie on a crossroads between the Western world, the Islamic world and the African world," he said.

"We are a modern society that values its traditional culture, but we are also evolving rapidly."

Image copyright RICHARD DUEBEL
Image caption Amine Kabbaj says Marrakech is at a cultural crossroads

Art infrastructure

During the 10 years of the Marrakech Biennale, this hip and chic North African city has seen the opening of a film school, a large museum of photography and visual arts and numerous galleries. A private museum of contemporary African art is also under construction.

Within a matter of years the art infrastructure of this medium-sized city is likely to challenge some of the continent's largest.

Simon Njami, a leading African contemporary art curator, feels the current Marrakech Biennale should be viewed as the first.

"The previous editions were mere rehearsals," he says. "This is a big step forward. The start of something different."

Marrakech is already attracting a quarter of all visitors to Morocco.

According to Amine Boughaleb, of the Moroccan Tourist Office, that number is rising. "We expect well over three million visitors to Marrakech this year," he says.

"It has enormous potential to develop yet further. Its popularity will be underpinned by further cultural offerings."

Art investment

Until now the African art market has focused on Nigeria and South Africa, with their large number of artists, investors, curators and philanthropists.

But, although Marrakech has a far smaller scene, this former hippy city is now enjoying significant investment by the private sector, creating a smaller version of the Gulf "starchitect" building boom - a sort of miniature Qatar or Abu Dhabi.

The new contemporary art museum to be created by Morocco's Fondation Alliances organisation, which supports economic, social and cultural development, is based on the collection of its president, Alami Lazraq.

His collection includes more than 1,000 pieces of art from around the continent.

"The aim is to promote social cohesion, and to showcase African contemporary art in Africa," says Mr Lazraq.

"The museum will be situated between three golf courses and next to a working-class neighbourhood.

Increasingly, up-market developments on the outskirts of Marrakech have added to its affluent population, a transient, well-heeled crowd who take galleries and museums as a given. Looking at and investing in art is part of their cultural experience.

Touria El Glaoui, daughter of one of Morocco's best known painters and founder of London's 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, says that Marrakech is the right place for these developments.

"My father is from Marrakech and art is part of life here," she says. "When all the infrastructure is in place this city will be even more amazing."

Image copyright RICHARD DUEBEL
Image caption Art curator Simon Njami says: "History is in the making now, and it looks as if Marrakech is taking up the challenge."

Attempts in other parts of the continent to create museums have not been met with success. London-based Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare bemoans the lack of political will to create a national museum of contemporary art in Lagos.

'Ourselves to blame'

"Even suggesting it made me almost feel like a colonialist," he says. "It was as if I was telling Africans what they needed. It is something that should develop organically."

The mooted museum would have been designed by noted African architect David Adjaye.

Morocco's art philanthropists are choosing to use their collections like museums, for the public to enjoy.

Sharing their works with the people brings public-relations benefits and is perhaps, as, Simon Njami suggests, a process of cultural re-appropriation.

"The ancient art of Africa is displayed all over the world and we cannot see it on the continent. We can blame colonisation for that.

"But if, in a century, no actual art can be found in African museums, there will be only ourselves to blame," he says.

"History is in the making now. and it looks as if Marrakech is taking up the challenge."

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